Rich Herbst on Automation in Verizon’s B2B Customer Journey

The other day, I had the chance to meet with Rich Herbst of Ascend Marketing. His team has developed a breakthrough approach to delivering a custom communications stream to business buyers based on their particular journeys, one that recently won awards for Verizon. Very cool stuff. My gratitude to him for providing these insights.

Rich Herbst, founder and managing partner, Ascend Marketing
Rich Herbst, founder and managing partner, Ascend Marketing | Credit: Ascend Marketing

The other day, I had the chance to meet with Rich Herbst, founder and managing partner of Ascend Marketing, which is based in Dallas and Austin. Rich agreed to discuss what he and his team have been doing in B2B, and share what they’ve learned in recent years, as business buying behavior evolves. His team has developed a breakthrough approach to delivering a custom communications stream across the B2B customer journey. Very cool stuff. My gratitude to him for providing these insights.

Q: Tell Us a Bit About Your Professional Background, Rich.

When I was working on my MBA years ago, I had in mind a career in strategic marketing, but with some sort of entrepreneurial slant. I started my career in CPG, which I really enjoyed, and then transitioned into telecom/tech. During my corporate career, I somehow found my way into a series of transformational challenges, like brand relaunches and new product work — which was really invigorating. We started Ascend Marketing in 2004, and it’s been a fun and interesting ride.

Q: How is Ascend Differentiating From Its Competitors?

We work in a model quite different from traditional agencies or consultancies. Our specialty is Journey Marketing — particularly highly automated journeys — and it requires a different approach. We work very deeply with our clients to transform their marketing, from the ”inside out,” so to speak. It requires a rethink of a whole lot of marketing, sales and business processes. It’s more than just changing campaign tactics or finding a new agency. We help clients envision — and then deliver — more powerful customer and prospect journey experiences across their full lifecycle and across all channels, using advanced data and automation technology.

Q: You and Your Verizon Client Recently Won a Silver PRO Award. Congrats! What Was That Campaign, and What Can Marketers Learn From Its Success?

That was Verizon’s Quantum Upgrade program. It was more than just a campaign. It’s actually a great example of the highly advanced — and automated — customer journey approach I mentioned.

Verizon was looking for a better way to upgrade its business customers to a faster Internet speed. They also had a vision of applying more advanced automation and data technology. We began in 2016 by designing a more sophisticated journey architecture. Using the Kitewheel decisioning engine, plus a custom data platform, we created personalized experiences for each marketing communication recipient.

Each Verizon business customer received a personalized email with a unique subject line, headline, subhead, marquee header image, body copy, Verizon phone number, landing page, offer, price point, legal disclaimer, and call-to-action button. By segmenting customer data and continuously testing subject lines, body copy and creative, our custom-designed journey marketing platform automatically served emails with best-performing subject lines, creative and offers to each qualified customer. Ascend also designed custom landing pages that matched each email version.

The results were astounding. The email open rates more than doubled. The volume of inbound calls increased by 7%. Cost per acquisition went down 14%. Best of all, sales increased by 336%.

Q: Why Do You Think Journey-specific Marketing Is the Way to go in B2B Marketing?

We think the journey approach is what’s next in marketing. Rather than blasting messages at targets, we are gaining direct insight into what the customer or prospect is really seeking, in that moment, and where the prospect is in an overall lifecycle. Based on those insights, we deliver a highly attuned experience that meets them where they are. When we do that well, the results soar.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this work is interpreting, via the available data, the signals that tell us where the customer is in his/her journey. While there’s a lot of automation being used in B2B marketing today, mostly we still see marketers using technology to basically pull a list and then deliver an automated series of digital tactics.

Automated Journey Marketing goes far beyond just pulling a list. And the delivery of that experience should go well beyond the basic digital channels to incorporate sales channel experiences, personalized web experiences, and service experiences.

Q. What Advice Would You Give to a B2B Company That Wants to Start a Customer Journey Marketing Program?

Take a step-wise approach. First, it’s critical to put a sound roadmap in front of the work. Second, journey automation strategies involve real rigor in data handling. You have to align data from a number of sources and channels, and the data must be clean for the journey experiences to execute reliably.

Third, content management can be overwhelming if not taken in steps. To design and deliver well-attuned journey experiences, you need to assemble the relevant content. Plus, you need more refined versioning of the creative to make sure each touchpoint matches the customer’s needs and preferences.

With those foundational pieces in place, the automation work is more likely to succeed.

Q: Things Are Changing so Fast These Days. Where do You See Future Opportunity for B2B Marketers?

I think that B2B marketers who can strategically get their arms around the advanced insights and tech tools available today will be able to write their own tickets.

Why Net Neutrality Is a Marketing Issue

The Net may soon have gate keepers, a price tag or a throttle — and that’s something we should all be concerned about. Marketers, in particular, should be paying attention and throwing their support behind Net Neutrality as both a concept and as a set of regulations because without those safeguards the critical connection points to consumers may be threatened.

“Rusty Lock” Creative Commons license | Credit: Flickr by webhamster

The Net may soon have gate keepers, a price tag or a throttle — and that’s something we should all be concerned about. Marketers, in particular, should be paying attention and throwing their support behind Net Neutrality as both a concept and as a set of regulations because without those safeguards the critical connection points to consumers may be threatened.

New online business models and innovations have thrived with the freedom of equal access officially protected first by the FCC in 2010 with the passage of the Open Internet Order. Many challenges and debates later, this order was expanded in 2015 in an effort to assure a level playing field.

The current administration’s FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, hopes to dismantle the regulations that allow smaller players to compete with huge ISPs like Comcast or Verizon that wield lobbying power and have deep, deep pockets and a big stake in the production and delivery of online content. This could happen before the year end and opens the door to scenarios that include the big ISPs blocking select content, slowing or speeding up select content or instituting pay walls for certain content.

It is easy to see how that may discourage access and innovation for new or smaller players or new offerings as the big power players will be free to throw obstacles in the path of contenders.

Especially now as video becomes ubiquitous as a critical marketing tactic and consumers use increasing bandwidth to stream content, this question needs to be asked: Will video advertising (in particular pre-roll) suffer from a tiered distribution model that forces some, but not all, to pay a premium to deliver that content? Will those consumers consigned to the slow lane stick around to see ads? Marketers may be forced to factor in delivery speed, access and other cost and optimization factors such that the ROI equations will differ based on who you are. This removes meritocracy and weights success not by the quality of your message or product/service but on whether you have the power to shift the odds in your favor.

To be fair, the world is not fair now. Large players already have advantages in cash, scale and access, but the removal of Net Neutrality would fundamentally weaken the very strengths that gave us so many innovations from Internet startups in the past two decades. It’s not a political issue, according to a variety of recent polls as citizens in both major parties overwhelmingly support Net Neutrality. It’s a potential abuse of power issue. Simple and scary.

Opponents of an Internet with fair and equal access cite a distaste for regulations and government interference; some even call it a solution in search of a problem. But the potential for abuse is huge and the impact will reverberate in our economy for decades if we allow power to corrupt the models that drive our fastest growing and most globally influential industries here in the US.

The likely result of the dismantling of the protections currently in place will be higher marketing costs, reduced access to consumers, diminished targeting and data capabilities and declining novelty in online ad offerings and services. That’s not the marketing advances we hope and work for. We can expect the void to be filled by other countries not operating under these adverse conditions for another blow to our global and economic position.

What to do, what to do? “The Internet-Wide Day of Action” online protest took place on July 12 this year and was broadly supported by nearly every company in the Internet game including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Yelp, Dropbox, Netflix, reddit and many others. But you don’t have to be a company to fight for equal access. Make your voice heard in online venues, on your website and with your representatives, sign the petition here at battleforthenet.com, or visit savetheinternet.com for more ideas.

How are you going to fight for equal access?

Verizon’s 180 on Unlimited Data

Unlimited data: for many, it’s a core requirement of their mobile plans. So when Verizon killed the option for existing users in 2012 … well, customers were none too happy. But the other three major telecoms? They probably felt like they had won the Super Bowl, and have spent the last five years reminding anyone and everyone that they’re NOT Verizon.

Unlimited DataLet’s kick today’s post off with this: I have been a customer of AT&T, Verizon, Straight Talk, and Sprint … and Sprint is my current mobile carrier because, when it came down to it, I needed a plan with unlimited data at a certain price point. Now you know my mobile biz.

Unlimited data: for many, it’s a core requirement of their mobile plans. So when Verizon killed the option for existing users in 2012 … well, customers were none too happy. But the other three major telecoms? They probably felt like they had won the Super Bowl, and have spent the last five years reminding anyone and everyone that they’re NOT Verizon.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, T-Mobile used two of its four ads to specifically call out Verizon, with the other two ads focusing on its unlimited data offerings, explained by Justin Bieber in one and Martha Stewart and Snoop Dog in the other. Sprint’s single Superbowl commercial also called out Verizon … and got dark:

https://youtu.be/w_8ms2RzSYk

Yowza.

Oh, and Sprint nabbed Paul Marcarelli, the “Can you hear me now?” guy after Verizon ended his contract in 2011, and has been using him in commercials as well. Ouch.

And you can’t forget that the customer base has been eaten into by the likes of T-Mobile.

Yet still, Verizon put out ads like the one below, rallying against unlimited data, stating that consumers rarely use more than 5GB.

https://youtu.be/hzYOr-CeRCs

This ad ran from mid-January to early February of this year … and then on Feb. 12, Verizon announced, “Oh hey … we have an unlimited plan now.”

Say what?

https://youtu.be/4Zf1NLj_FGA

Now, in my opinion, this is where the marketing whiplash comes in. Verizon went from “You don’t need more than 5GB of data, and here’s a great price” to “here’s some unlimited data on a great network.” Okay … but it’s been FIVE YEARS.

Verizon, you’ve been the butt of jokes made by T-Mobile and Sprint. Many customers have jumped ship. And Sprint now has the actor who provided possibly the catchiest of catchphrases in telecom, who was apart of the Verizon family for over nine years, working for them.

And yet you present your new unlimited plan like someone ordering “the chicken” on an airplane.

It’s underwhelming. And a little off-putting. Why not own it? Own the fact that you’ve finally listened to what consumers want, not what you think they should have.

Or, and I realize this could be risky, make a little fun of yourself. Everyone else has … I think it would have been hilarious to see the marketing team come up with a series of ads where Verizon is upset over being picked on, breaking up with its spokesperson only to see him run into the arms of another carrier, and then finally coming to the realization that it needs to get with the times and get back on the unlimited bandwagon.

Because an unlimited plan isn’t mic drop worthy anymore. It’s the norm.